Banal Blasphemy in Beijing

A new exhibition opened in China this weekend, showcasing art that mocks Christianity just in time for the birthday of the Church on Pentecost. Entitled “The Road”, the show at the Pace Gallery’s Beijing outpost features recent paintings by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, whose work has become something of a Kelly bag these days, i.e. a “must-have” for the cognoscenti. In the show, Yue explores a number of themes from the life of Christ and the saints, portraying them in his immediately recognizable, one-trick pony style. Yet his work is so repetitive and derivative, than it is a bit like buying a fake Rolex off the street.

Yue’s talent, such as it is, is to paint images of figures wearing reptilian expressions usually described as “smiles”. Personally, his figures always seem to me to be laughing rather than smiling, given that I do not know many people who shut their eyes tightly and open their mouths wide when they smile – but there you are. The heads of these figures are almost always based on Yue’s own head, which is painted onto the body in a disproportionate size.

According to the website for the show, which not only explains the exhibition but also provides much-needed laughter on a Monday morning:

In his newest exhibition, Yue’s work takes on Christian forms. The strength of Western culture has pushed more than a few Chinese people into an existence stripped of its cultural core, making them into nomads, wandering in the space between two cultures. By altering the semantic relationships between the people and space in the original works, the works seem almost to dissolve away, neatly avoiding the contradictions and embarrassment inherent to any collision between two cultures. As the curator Leng Lin stated, “Confronted with something you don’t completely understand, a smile can mean rejection, or confusion. But it can also mean inclusion and acceptance.”

[N.B.: I suspect whoever wrote this description used to work at the undergraduate admissions office at Georgetown.]

The Pace Gallery is based in the United States but, as is always the case in the international art market, they followed the money. As was the case in Japan 20-30 years ago, all the new billionaires in China need works of art to cover the walls of their luxury homes, and as back-up investments in case the stock market sours. Some of these people will, as the Russians have done, use their new wealth to purchase their country’s antiquities, in order to repatriate their cultural patrimony, particularly pieces which made their way out of the country as a result of Communist totalitarianism. Other collectors however, are simply interested in being perceived as trendy hipsters, and it is to this group of customers that galleries like Pace cater with exhibitions such as this.

Scrolling through the images of the show, we first see a “Baptism of Christ” where all of the Yue clones are wearing speedos. Next is a work entitled “Annunciation”, copying the background of Fra Angelico’s famous version in the Priory of San Marco in Florence, but eliminating the figures of the Angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. This is displayed near a tondo entitled “The Crowning of Thorns”, showing a single figure wearing a crown of thorns on a swirly, psychedelic background.

Next comes a rendering of “The Entombment”, which copies the figural arrangement of Caravaggio’s masterpiece in the Vatican but again features all male figures in speedos; this hangs near a “Deposition from the Cross”, where there are no figures and the deposition appears to already be over. The exhibition concludes with a piece entitled “Resurrection”. To me, this last seems to be a mistake in titling by the artist. I cannot immediately identify what painting Yue is copying, but the composition would seem more likely to be the second appearance of Christ to the Apostles after the Resurrection, given the gesture of the figure in the lower left, who would therefore represent St. Thomas.

From a technical standpoint – and I know one of my regular readers in particular is going to say I am being too charitable – Yue has some understanding of composition. Admittedly, in these works he is generally doing little more than copying the well-thought-out compositions of better artists than he. As a sort of contemporary surrealist his would not be an unusual practice, but Yue does not appear to have much fun doing it.  There is no “gusto” in his work.

Not unlike the far more talented surrealist René Magritte, Yue has an eye for graphic impact but little skill in the application of paint. Many people, this writer included, love the work of Magritte for its humor, but his technique as a painter admittedly left much to be desired. In Yue’s case, his style is so clearly dependent upon artists like Magritte that, when combined with Yue’s high school art student understanding of light and shadow, the whole comes off as counterfeit.

With respect to the question of blasphemy, simply put Yue is not really any good at it.  Based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of imagery in the Church, contemporary artists like Yue seem to be operating under the collective impression that by mocking Christian iconography they weaken the Christian message.  Catholics know that paintings are pathways to prayer, rather than objects required for the survival of the Faith.  This is why the stark minimalism of the Cistercians, for example, can co-exist alongside the Baroque exuberance of the Theatines: for those who find visual clues helpful, they are provided, and for those who do not need such clues, they can be eschewed, but in neither instance are they necessary. We do not like images that insult our Church any more than we would like images that insult our family and friends or our country, but we also know that God cannot be injured by a work of art.

In sum then, at least in this particular show, Yue is trying to box above his weight as an artist.  He exhibits both a lack of artistic skill and a lack of understanding of the subject matter which is all-too-typical in the post-modern world. The end result is that this reviewer is left both unimpressed and unmoved.